Sumas Lake

Coordinates: 49°04′N 122°05′W / 49.07°N 122.09°W / 49.07; -122.09
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Sumas Lake
Semá:th Lake
Semáts Xácho7
Panorama of Sumas Lake taken by Leonard Frank
Sumas Lake is located in British Columbia
Sumas Lake
Sumas Lake
LocationChilliwack, Abbotsford, British Columbia
Coordinates49°04′N 122°05′W / 49.07°N 122.09°W / 49.07; -122.09
Primary inflowsChilliwack River
Primary outflowsSaar Creek
Sumas Drainage Canal
Basin countriesCanada
Surface area4,000 ha (9,900 acres)
SettlementsSumas Prairie
Animated map of the Fraser Valley
Disappearance of Sumas Lake

Sumas Lake (Halq’eméyle: Semá:th Lake, Nooksack: Semáts Xácho7, (Level Place Lake)[2]) was a shallow freshwater lake surrounded by extensive wetlands that once existed in eastern Fraser Lowland, located on the south side of the Sumas River between the foothills of Sumas Mountain (not to be confused with the same-named American mountain) and Vedder Mountain. It disappeared after being artificially drained for flood control and land reclamation from 1920 to 1924, leaving behind a low-lying flatland known as the Sumas Prairie, which is nowadays drained by the Saar Creek (a lower tributary of the Sumas River) and the namesaked Sumas Drainage Canal.

The traditional territory of the Semá:th people (Sumas First Nation), a band of the Sto:lo Nation,[3] the lake lay midway between the present-day Canadian cities of Chilliwack and Abbotsford, British Columbia, and extended past the Canada–United States border into the territory east of Sumas, Whatcom County, Washington, necessitating a British Columbia Electric Railway trestle (which remains today as a dyke) across it from Huntingdon to the foot of Vedder Mountain.

The lake used to support sturgeon, trout, salmon, grizzly bears and geese, and its wetland habitat was a destination for migrating birds and a breeding ground for both fish and waterfowl. Flocks of white-fronted goose as well as whistling swan and Hutchins geese also used the lake. Its partially sandy banks also provided for sturgeon spawning grounds. The lake supplied food to the Sumas Band, and their life ways were intimately connected to it.[3][4][5][6] In the late 1800s, the lake drew the attention of various naturalists within the growing European population engaged in the work of cataloging the flora and fauna that they encountered where they settled.[7][8]


Early farmyards in the vicinity of Sumas Lake were laid out as "dry-point" farms on narrow ridges formed by old lake shorelines to escape periodic flooding of adjacent lowlands.[9] Similarly, the BC Electric Railway route skirted the south shore of the lake.[10] After the devastating 1894 Fraser basin flood, and in order to create more fertile farmland for settlers, BC Electric engineer Fred Sinclair formed a plan to drain the lake in the early 1920s. By 1924 the Chilliwack River had been diverted west into the newly formed Vedder Canal. The lake was then drained through the Sumas Drainage Canal and into the Fraser River around the northeastern tip of the Sumas Mountain. The multi-year project, entailing massive cost overruns on the building of drainage works,[11][12] effectively turned Sumas Lake into the Sumas Prairie.[13][14][15] Farm lands recovered from the lake were not as good as claimed, and sold for less than anticipated. Dairy farming, and another already established crop, hops, continued to be important to profitability, while other crops such as grains did not take hold as anticipated.[11][12] Having been sold off to settlers in the 1930s for $60–120 an acre, the former lakebed has since been transformed into highly successful agricultural, residential and commercial zones. As of 2013 the area of the former lake was the subject of a specific land claim by Sumas First Nation.[3]


In addition to flooding recorded in the region prior to the draining of the lake, significant flood events in the area of the former Sumas Lake have occurred on numerous occasions,[16][6] notably in 1894, 1948, 1972 and 2007 due to major spring freshets of the Fraser River, along with November 1990[17][18][19][20] and November 2021 due to extreme rainfall.

In 2019, the city of Abbotsford received federal funding to study flooding of the former Sumas Lake area related to overflow from the Nooksack River.[21] The report found that although a one in 35-year flood such as that of 1990 could be contained, a larger one that breached dikes had the potential to refill Sumas Lake and leave parts of Sumas Prairie under more than three metres of water, submerging homes, destroying property, killing livestock, and thereby compromising food security for those who depend upon the region for agriculture.[22]

In November 2021, during the 2021 Pacific Northwest floods, this did occur. The overflow from the Nooksack River and the Fraser River filled Sumas Lake, flooding segments of British Columbia Highway 1 and forcing the evacuation of 1100 homes, along with farms and farm workers in Abbotsford.[23][1][24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Chan, Kenneth (17 November 2021). "What is Sumas Lake? 100 years ago, Abbotsford had a 134 sq km lake (PHOTOS)". Urbanized. Daily Hive. ZoomerMedia. Retrieved 2021-11-18.
  2. ^ "Cultural Resources Department". NookSack Indian Tribe. Retrieved 2013-09-16.
  3. ^ a b c Smith, Emma; Verstraten, Katelyn (2013-05-06) [April 27, 2013]. "Sumas First Nation seeks compensation for its lost lake". The Vancouver Sun. Postmedia Network. Archived from the original on 2016-05-13. Retrieved 2021-07-25.
  4. ^ "Chief's Message : Sumas First Nation". Retrieved 2021-11-17.
  5. ^ Thetáx, Chris Silver; Xémontélót, Carrielynn Victor; Foulds, Kris; Schneider, Laura (2020). Semá:th Xó:tsa_Sts'ólemeqwelh Sxó:tsa Great-Gramma's Lake (PDF). Abbotsford: Reach Gallery Museum. ISBN 9781988311319.[dead link]
  6. ^ a b Woods, Jody R., Sumas Lake Transformations in Carlson, Keith; McHalsie, Albert Jules; Stó:lō Heritage Trust (2001). A Stó:lō-Coast Salish historical atlas. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. ISBN 0-295-98044-3. OCLC 44940929. Retrieved 2021-11-19 – via WorldCat.
  7. ^ Cameron, Laura Jean (1994). Openings to a lake: historical approaches to Sumas Lake, British Columbia (Thesis). University of British Columbia. doi:10.14288/1.0087484.
  8. ^ Cameron, Laura (1997). Openings : a meditation on history, method, and Sumas Lake. UBC Academic Women's Association. [Vancouver, B.C.]: University of British Columbia, Academic Women's Association. ISBN 978-0-7735-6685-9. OCLC 180704109 – via WorldCat.
  9. ^ Siemens, Alfred Henry (1960). Mennonite settlement in the lower Fraser Valley (Thesis). University of British Columbia. doi:10.14288/1.0106828.
  10. ^ White, Robert W. "BC Electric Railway Map". Retrieved 2021-11-17.
  11. ^ a b Murton, James (2008-01-01). "Creating Order: The Liberals, the Landowners, and the Draining of Sumas Lake, British Columbia". Environmental History. 13 (1). University of Chicago Press: 92–125. doi:10.1093/envhis/13.1.92. ISSN 1084-5453.
  12. ^ a b Murton, James (2011). Creating a Modern Countryside: Liberalism and Land Resettlement in British Columbia. UBC Press. pp. 109–135. ISBN 978-0-7748-4071-2 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ Olsen, Tyler (2016-11-19). "Keeping the lake at bay in Abbotsford: How an engineering marvel defeats gravity to keep Sumas Prairie dry". The Abbotsford News. Black Press. Retrieved 2021-11-16.
  14. ^ Olsen, Tyler (2018-12-12). "Fraser Valley's lost lake was at centre of local life for centuries: new book". The Abbotsford News. Black Press. Retrieved 2021-11-17.
  15. ^ Reimer, Chad (2018). Before we lost the lake : a natural and human history of Sumas Valley. Halfmoon Bay, BC. ISBN 978-1-987915-58-7. OCLC 1055268924.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  16. ^ Septer, D. Flooding and Landslide Events Southern British Columbia 1808-2006 (PDF). British Columbia. Ministry of Environment. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2021-11-16.
  17. ^ Olsen, Tyler (17 May 2018). "The Fraser River doesn't pose the only flood threat to Abbotsford". The Abbotsford News. Black Press. Retrieved 29 November 2021. A Nooksack flood in 1990 swamped the Whatcom Road interchange and western portions of Sumas Prairie. Such a flood is expected to take place every 35 years or so. There are worries that a larger flood event would change the course of the river entirely, diverting it north into the channel of the much-smaller Sumas River.
  18. ^ Olsen, Tyler (3 September 2018). "Group tasked with preventing major Fraser Valley flood hasn't met in seven years". Today In BC. Black Press. Retrieved 29 November 2021. In 1990, the Nooksack River in northern Washington overflowed its banks, with its waters flooding over the border and into Sumas Prairie. The flood cut off Highway 1, and also inundated the towns of Everson and Sumas.
  19. ^ Oatley, Gabe; Woloshyn, Roxanna; Kelley, Mark; Cashore, Harvey (26 November 2021). "Province was warned breached B.C. dike 'substandard' years before it failed". CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 29 November 2021. As recently as 1990, the Nooksack River overflowed, flooding parts of Washington state and north into Abbotsford's Sumas River basin.
  20. ^ Olsen, Tyler (2 October 2019). "Nooksack River flood risk study gets go-ahead after years of task force inaction". Today In BC. Black Press. Retrieved 29 November 2021. When the Nooksack topped its banks in 1990, its waters inundated parts of Sumas Prairie and closed Highway 1 to traffic for 26 hours.
  21. ^ Olsen, Tyler; Kennedy, Grace (2021-11-17). "Abbotsford's flood crisis could revive Sumas Lake". Fraser Valley Current. Overstory Media Group. Retrieved 2021-11-17.
  22. ^ Kerr Wood Leidal Associates Ltd. (30 November 2020). Nooksack River Overflow Flood Mitigation Plan: Final Report - Revised (PDF) (Report). City of Abbotsford.
  23. ^ Penner, Patrick (2021-11-16). "Immediate evacuation order for Sumas Prairie due to landslide in Abbotsford". The Abbotsford News. Black Press. Retrieved 2021-11-16.
  24. ^ Grochowski, Sarah (17 November 2021). "Migrant workers evacuated from Abbotsford flooding face uncertain future". The Vancouver Sun. Postmedia Network. Retrieved 2021-11-18.

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